Suffering and the Problem of Evil
Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka
Christianity believes in a benevolent God who created the universe and all things in it. The genesis of creation was God's overflowing love, and God's plan for creation is rooted in divine goodness. God created humans in order to love them as a parent loves his or her children.
In a universe such as this, how do Christians understand suffering and evil? Why would God, a benevolent creator who loves all creatures, especially God's human children, allow evil and suffering to exist?
Christians have faith in a good and loving Creator who has a plan for creation that is also good and loving. This tenet of faith has prompted Christians to seek explanations or justifications for suffering. Human suffering takes many forms: emotional, natural, and moral. Loneliness, anxiety, and grief are examples of emotional suffering. Fires, tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunami, and physical illnesses (e.g., cancer) are examples of natural suffering. Moral suffering is brought on by the deliberate acts of fellow human beings to cause suffering, something Christians call a moral evil.
Toward the end of the 2nd century, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons and a Church Father, formulated an theodicy, an argument intended to show that evil is necessary for human moral and spiritual development and is part of God's purpose. God created humans in a morally and spiritually imperfect state so that they can strive in response to suffering, in order to grow into full fellowship with God. This argument continues to influence Christian thought and belief.
Another early argument with strong contemporary resonance was advanced by the influential theologian Augustine, born in 354, who became the Bishop of Hippo in north Africa. Augustine proposed that, since God endowed people with free will, we were able to freely choose to do evil as well as good. Simply stated, there is evil in the world because humans choose to do evil things. "Free" will is not free if we can only choose the good, so God does not prevent us from choosing evil. Suffering is the price we pay for this freedom to choose.
A third explanation of evil was advanced by the 18th-century philosopher G.W. Leibniz who believed that despite our suffering, and the tragic and catastrophic events in our lives, we are living in the best of all possible worlds. God is in control, Leibniz believed. When something terrible happens, it is not because God is not involved. God allowed it in order to prevent an even more terrible event from occurring. God is able to anticipate and prevent consequences that we cannot see. Since God is good and loving, we can trust that God creates and sustains the best possible world.